Kit Carson Peak & Challenger Point

Location: east of Crestone, Colorado
Dates: August 29-30, 2013
Overall distance: ~15 miles round trip (estimated)
Overall elevation gain: 6100 feet (estimated)

Kit Carson Peak (left of center) and Challenger Point (right) above Willow Lake

After spending the night at the Chalk Lake Campground near Buena Vista, I drove down to Crestone, Colorado to begin a two day backpacking trip during which I camped near Willow Lake and hiked to Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak. From Crestone I followed a fairly well maintained dirt road to the South Crestone trailhead. This road previously had signs saying that it was for four wheel drive vehicles only, but now (and even then) it is in good enough condition for all cars.

I left the trailhead at about 11:00 am and perhaps 100 feet thereafter reached the split of the trail to South Crestone Lake (to the northeast/left) and Willow Lake (to the east/right). The trail then crossed a small stream and entered a small meadow for about 0.15 mi from which you could see out into the San Luis Valley below. The rate of elevation gain from the trailhead to Willow Lake is fairly constant - there are no very steep sections and very few flat sections thanks to switchbacks in several places.

The first meadow near the trailhead looking over the San Luis Valley

Upon exiting the meadow the trail enters a forest which it switchbacks up for about 1.5 miles and 1000 feet of elevation gain. At this point the trail is on a small ridge (elevation 9900 ft) with the route you just followed to the west/north and a large, flat meadow known as Willow Creek Park to the south. The trail descends perhaps 100 feet down towards the meadow, but never goes all the way down to it. From above the meadow you can see much of Challenger Point and the general route that you follow to get to Willow Lake.

Willow Creek Park

Challenger Point at right above Willow Creek Park. The trail goes up the valley at center

The trail travels to the north above Willow Creek Park for about a quarter mile before reentering forest. The trail continues to moderately gain elevation, crossing some switchbacks before turning southward a bit as you reach the headwall that Willow Creek flows over. After crossing the stream the trail turns up a series of short, steep switchbacks before reaching the top of the headwall at about 11,100 feet.  From the top of the headwall to the lake is about 3/4 of a mile, and the lake is at 11,600 feet. No camping is not permitted within 300 feet of the lake, and most of the best campsites are below and before you reach the lake at 11,500 feet.

Looking down the valley towards Willow Creek Park from the headwall

Willow Creek  flowing over the headwall

I chose a campsite and set up my tent before checking out the lake. Luckily, I did this all soon enough before a storm arrived at 4:15 and hailed until 5:45 pm. Once the storm passed I had dinner, the sky cleared up, and there were no more storms until the following afternoon. That night the temperature was a bit warmer than I had expected - perhaps in the low 50s or upper 40s.

Willow Lake

Looking up towards Challenger Point from the campsites

The hail remnants at my campsite

The morning of the 30th I had breakfast and began hiking at 7:00 am. The trail becomes much rougher as it goes around the north side of Willow Lake and through the willows on the cliffs on the east side of the lake. After passing the lake the trail begins to climb (from 11,700 feet) the north side of Challenger Point. As the trail climbs Challenger Point it first follows the base of a ledge before paralleling a gully that leads to the top of the ridge at 13,900 feet.

Kit Carson from the route up Challenger 

Mount Adams from the route up Challenger Point

From the top of the ridge, continue to the south side before turning back up the ridge and onto the top/north side of the ridge. Follow the ridge a quarter mile to the summit of Challenger Point (elevation 14,087 feet). From the summit of Challenger Point you have a clear view of Kit Carson Peak and many of the other surrounding mountains.

Kit Carson (left) and Challenger Point (center)

View from Challenger Point (Kit Carson is at right)

To get to Kit Carson Peak from Challenger Point you have to descend about 300 feet along the eastern ridge of Challenger that connects to the western side of Kit Carson. Once at this saddle you continue up a pathway and natural rock ledge called Kit Carson Avenue. After gaining 150 feet of elevation on this ledge, it turns downhill again, so follow it as it descends east towards Columbia Point. However, do not go all the way down the ridge. You must turn up a steep, class 3 gully that goes to the summit. This turn off point was not very conspicuous, except for one small rock cairn along the ledge.

Kit Carson from below the summit of Challenger

Descending Kit Carson Avenue

This gully leads nearly the entire way to the summit (elevation 14,171 feet), from which the views are about the same as from Challenger Point, except you have a less obstructed view to the east. The return route to Willow Lake is via the same route that is used to go to the summit of Kit Carson/Challenger Point. There is however another class 3 couloir between Kit Carson and Columbia Point.

View from Kit Carson (Crestone Peak & Crestone Needle at center)

View from Kit Carson (Challenger Point at left, Willow Lake at right)

Challenger Point from Kit Carson Avenue

I decided to take this couloir to avoid having to regain several hundred feet of elevation on Kit Carson Avenue and Challenger Point. However, this was not a very good decision. This route continues down to the end of Kit Carson Avenue and then enters a couloir on the south side of the saddle. This couloir is very steep and filled with loose rocks, so climbing the 200 feet to reach the saddle is not very easy.

View from the lower part of the OB coulior

Once at the saddle, the OB couloir (on the north side of the saddle) descends 700 feet at 45-50 degree angles and was filled with loose rocks, gravel, and hail from the previous storm. So every step I took was a sliding step that send rocks and debris flying all the way down to the bottom of the couloir. I would strongly avoid taking this route just because of this alone, especially if you're hiking with someone else because the threat of falling debris is great. But near the the bottom of the couloir I reached the greatest obstacle - a 40 foot high sheet of ice that stretched from cliffs on one side of the couloir to the other.

The ice sheet in the OB coulior

Since by this point the effects of spending two days at this altitude were beginning to set in (not to mention the adrenaline from this descent to this point) I scouted for any way around before coming up with a plausible option. I decided to climb on this cliffs above the ice sheet before jumping down to a 6-inch wide gap where the ice first separates from the cliff. I was either going to nail the landing, miss the landing and slide down 30 feet on the ice to the boulders below, or lose much grip on the rocks and fall before attempting to jump.

Upper Willow Lake from the bottom of the OB Coulior

With careful planning and free hands I made the jump, but the loose debris began to slide as soon as I landed so I grabbed on to whatever rocks on the cliff I could to stabilize myself. From here the descent continued, but was not as steep as the coulior, and my route crossed boulder fields until I arrived near the bottom of the valley below the upper Willow Lake. My path through the valley passed through meadows covered with boulders as I descended further until reaching willows. I didn't see any easy way through or around the willows, so I simply continued straight through/on top of them until I reached the main trail as it turned up Challenger Point.

Looking up the OB Coulior

Columbia Point and Kit Carson with the OB Coulior at center

I followed the trial back to the camping area, packed up my gear, and headed back down the trail. Once I passed below the headwall the building storms began to drop light hail on me. As continued further down the trail the hail was a little steadier, but not as intense as at my campsite the previous night. I managed to return to the trailhead around 4:00 pm.

The north side of Challenger Point on my way out

Willow Lake from the east

© Copyright 2017 Matthew Pintar. All rights reserved.


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